Get Your Dream Deck
How to get the right backyard retreat for your house
Putting a deck on your house is perhaps the easiest way to increase your living space. It's a solid investment in a home's equity, so carefully consider how your deck will look and perform over the long term.
Today, designers and builders are conjuring up lavish decks of durable hardwoods or eco-friendly composites that curve sinuously around built-in spas or make room for beyond-the-barbecue cooking spaces. Decks are becoming more hospitable, too, with well-lit dining areas, portable heat lamps, and sofas covered in water- and fade-resistant fabrics.
A swooping steel railing follows the dramatic curve of this deck in Marin County, California, where a semicircular built-in seating area beckons guests to gather. Tucked beside the railing, barrel-shaped deck lights salvaged from an old ship help illuminate the space at night.
Like the popular open-plan kitchen/family room inside the house, the deck has become an all-in-one area for cooking, dining, and leisure activities outside. Though lavishly large, this deck—which starts at ground level and extends out over a sloping backyard—shows how an alfresco layout can seamlessly combine an all-weather kitchen, cafe table and chairs, and built-in seating area. The design works by clearly defining the function of each of its sections. The semicircular banquette area is the stage for frequent parties—the open-air equivalent of the living room. The large built-in planter does double-duty as a coffee table with a wide rim on which guests can set down drinks. Opposite this entertainment and lounging zone is a fully stocked outdoor kitchen with grill, rust-resistant stainless countertop, overhead task lights, sink, refrigerator, and cabinets to stow pots, pans, plates, and cutlery.
The deck design mimics the undulating curves of the mountain view and the home's own rear facade, which is concave. Deck boards made of ipe, an ultra-dense Brazilian hardwood, do not demand annual resealing and handily shrug off kids, pets, and dragged chairs. Mindful that the site's original deck and arbor blocked the fabulous vista, Marsh specified the steel railing, which is powder-coated to resist rust, because it practically disappears into the landscape when seen from a distance. "It's an illusion, of course," says Gary Marsh, the designer/builder who conceived the space. "It's quite sturdy."
Often located off the kitchen, dining, or living room to extend indoor eating or entertaining spaces, decks are also increasingly popular off master suites as a private place to watch the sunrise, as platforms around pools, and as stand-alone installations in a quiet corner of the yard. Keep in mind the site's orientation, too: A south-facing deck is great for sunbathing, but may be too hot for enjoying a meal.
A deck can be the solution to a problem yard, whether that means an uneven grade, a rocky outcropping, or, as in the case of this seaside lot in Carpinteria, California, shifting sands. The deck, which spans the area from the rear of the house to the edge of the beach, not only provides a solid foundation underfoot, but also a transition between the order of the house and the rough-and-tumble world outside. Because the punishing elements—salt spray, in particular—can be murder on a deck, the homeowners and their designer, Kathryne Dahlman, used materials that would stand up to the harsh environment. Weather-resistant composite boards, which are manufactured from recycled sawdust and plastic, were one choice they considered, but ultimately the family wanted the feel of real wood. So Dahlman specified redwood planks installed with a quarter-inch of extra space to allow rain and water tracked onto the deck to drip between the cracks. The extra breathing room also allows the boards to expand and contract with changing temperatures and humidity.
Large boulders were set against the front of the deck to help slow erosion. They also enabled the owners to use a low sitting wall instead of a view-blocking railing along the perimeter, since the distance from the deck to the ground (here, the top of the boulders) is less than 18 inches, the height at which local building code requires a rail.
Like deck boards and railings, outdoor furniture should be chosen as much for weather-worthiness as for looks. Here, the white dining chairs look like wicker but are actually made from a durable and easy-to-clean resin. For colored plastic furniture, be sure to specify a UV-resistant coating to prevent fading.
A well-designed deck can unify otherwise disparate outdoor structures. Originally, the owners of this lake house in Norcross, Georgia, had two such features. One sat awkwardly in the middle of the backyard: a combination fish pond and planter and an elevated gazebo perched on top of a shed that was reachable only via a flight of stairs. "The two elements weren't working with each other, nor were they tied to the rest of the yard," says designer and builder Dave Tibbetts.
His solution: link them with a pressure-treated Southern yellow pine deck that gently eases guests around the planter and up to the gazebo with a minimum of steps. By rimming the planter with matching pine planks finished with an amber-colored tinted sealer, he also added attractive built-in seating. Further unifying the look, the fascia boards skirting the planter, the stair risers, and the deck posts were painted white to match the new wood railing, which is topped with the sealed pine.
Building in deck features helps to apportion the space for various functions and make it more efficient. Permanent planters are a great way to bring seasonal color to decks. Hinged-top benches provide seating and dry storage for cushions and other supplies. Masonry firepits extend the outdoor entertaining season, while outdoor kitchen cabinets, fixtures, and appliances bring the cook out to the party.
We all dream of a deck that's unique to a place—our place, that is. But imagine taking that ideal so far as to build one only with materials native to your surroundings. The owners of this North Carolina house located on a riverbank in the Appalachian Mountains did just that. They used intersecting bark-covered laurel twigs instead of standard square balusters, and locust logs, which are durable outdoors even when untreated, for the posts of the 42-inch-high railing. The flat handrail is local cypress that's been stained, and the deck floorboards are indigenous pine that's been pressure-treated to resist rot. The railing posts are set inside the perimeter of the deck rather than along the outside. While placing posts this way eats into the usable square footage somewhat, it preserves the deck's clean lines when seen from the backyard by allowing for an unbroken ribbon of fascia boards along the outer rim of the deck.
For safety, most building codes require that railings be at least 36 inches high for decks built more than 30 inches off the ground, with no gaps between balusters or beneath the handrail through which a 4-inch sphere could pass. Some local codes also bar railings with horizontal members that kids could climb like a ladder. Thankfully, you can build railings out of a variety of materials to suit any style or special circumstance. Popular options other than wood include taut horizontal or vertical steel cable, metal sheeting or mesh, tubular piping, resin posts and balusters, and even tempered glass panels.
Though local codes rarely govern deck lighting, it's a good idea to install sconces around doorways and small recessed lamps on stair risers to prevent accidents at night. On this deck, the homeowners topped the railing posts with lanterns. Other ambient light options include spotlights, mounted in nearby trees or on an overhead pergola, and solar-powered deck lights, which are easy to install since they require no wiring. If you do choose solar, be sure to go with a high-quality set—the mechanisms in cheaper brands necessitate replacement every five years or so, which makes them a not-so-green choice.
Overhead structures can offer shade from the baking sun, and airy walls provide privacy from too-near neighbors. The open lattice fence on this deck in Marietta, Georgia, designed and built by Dave Tibbetts, helps the homeowners claim their space while also letting light and breezes pass through. Should the family eventually desire something less transparent, they could add climbing vines. Encouraging vines to grow on the pergola above could transform the structure from one that not only creates an intimate sense of enclosure but also offers shelter from light summer rain showers. In conjunction with the side railing and the back wall of the house, the lattice fence forms a U shape that also helps direct attention to a centerpiece in the yard: an outdoor fireplace set into the stone patio that the homeowners like to gather around. Tibbetts suggests considering such focal points before you build. "Look around your yard and try to find the prettiest thing—a prized planting area, a stream—then orient the deck in a such a way that you focus on it."
If you have a long run of stairs (like the seven in this project), split the difference: one set of three steps near the house, for instance, then four later on. Varying levels offer places to take in views from different vantage points. They also break up big space into distinct outdoor rooms.
Trees grow. Rocks don't. Keep this in mind when building your deck around them. Say you've selected an appropriate site for your backyard retreat but there are mature trees or monolithic stones in the way. Turn what might first seem like obstacles into assets by incorporating them into the deck design for a unique connection to your surroundings. Chopping down the towering trees here would have been a crime, so the owners of this California deck built around them.
For a tree, you'll have to frame around its trunk, leaving enough space for its ever-expanding girth. Use joists 16 inches on center with horizontal braces. A fast-growing sugar maple might put on 2 inches around its middle in 10 years; an oak, about half that much. Consult a local arborist and plan for the future shape your species will take. To prevent children and pets from falling into any gaps, consider building a simple square bench with a tall back around the opening.
Building beneath trees also presents upkeep issues. Those leafy branches that shield the deck can also—in certain climates—cause dampness and stimulate the growth of mosses that make boards slippery if not scrubbed down frequently. Work with a tree service to inspect and prune away weakened overhanging limbs to prevent them from falling and taking off the corner of your deck or injuring someone. Update your homeowner's insurance policy to cover damage to the deck, not just to your home.
Accommodating large boulders requires a little more carpentry skill, but a lot less long-term maintenance. The simplest method is to build a joist frame around the rock and lay your decking flush with its edge. This will leave a noticeable gap around the rock. For a snug fit, extend the the decking past the edge of the frame, carefully scribe the rock's outline onto the boards butted against it, and then cut along the line.